- The Washington Times - Monday, April 5, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - The orange peel was removed with the utmost care, in one long, thin strip. Not one speck of savory fruit was wasted. The peel hangs from a rusty nail under the battered tin roof of the one-room shack where Fanfan Cherie lives, and it is eloquent about his life and that of Haiti’s impoverished masses.

“We must save that to start our charcoal fire for cooking,” said Mr. Cherie, a muscular but thin man of 33. He is a plumber and welder who has not worked steadily in years, despite his best efforts to find a job.

“But today there is no food anyway, so there is no fire in the kitchen. It will be another day of hunger.”

Five miles away, on the outskirts of the notorious slum called Cite Soleil, Marie Louise Baker chokes back tears as she surveys the gutted ruins of her family’s textile-assembly factory, which was destroyed by a gang of marauders on Feb. 28 — the day before President Jean-Bertrand Aristide went into exile.

“When I look at this, it is a feeling of destruction,” she said. “They broke all the machines and then burned everything. My family has lost all that we built in 30 years of work. We invested everything here. None of our money left Haiti. And now our 800 employees have lost their jobs. Each job here supports about 10 people. That’s 8,000 people now with no income.”

Mr. Cherie and Mrs. Baker: Their two faces, like their backgrounds, couldn’t be more distinct. Mr. Cherie is dark and handsome, with piercing eyes, and Mrs. Baker, 59, is light-skinned and striking, possessed of grace and beauty.

They are the two faces of Haiti, and their lives reflect the country’s divided past, as well as its hope for a future of unity and progress that would end 200 years of violence and failed governments.

Split country

From its founding in 1804 as the world’s first independent black republic, Haiti has been riven by resentments, suspicion and exploitation, pitting its overwhelming black majority against a tiny elite class, probably less than 1 percent of the population, that owns most of the country’s wealth.

When black slaves rose up and overthrew their French colonial masters, they went on a killing rampage, and the surviving whites fled. Left behind was a scattering of mixed-race people, called mulattoes, who quickly took over the plantations left by the French.

The black generals who led the rebellion seized power, while the mulattoes became Haiti’s business and plantation owners. In the next two centuries, the two coexisted, at times acting in alliances, at others in standoffs edged with resentment.

Haiti’s governments were rarely successful. It became a “kleptocracy” — a system of government based on taxation and theft. Its dictators were typically brutal, and many were overthrown in coups d’etat, 33 times in 200 years — on average, every six years.

The mulatto elite, for the most part, did not develop a sense of civic duty. Having to pay bribes to do business, many took the easy way out, building lives of luxury and comfort on the backs of poorly paid servants and laborers.

The sad history created a marked contrast in geography: Port-au-Prince is a sprawling city of 2 million, with the poor living jumbled in ramshackle shantytowns along the hot lowlands, while the rich reside in opulent walled compounds on the cooler slopes of the mountain range that rises abruptly from the city’s edge.

Dying hopes

Fifteen years ago, there were great hopes that Haiti finally might be shaking off its troubled past. Mr. Aristide, a fiery-tongued Roman Catholic priest of the slums, became a celebrity and won the country’s first free and fair elections on a promise to lift up the poor masses.

Now that dream has died.

Removed once in a military coup, then restored in 1994 by U.S. intervention, Mr. Aristide gave up the priesthood to wed and, his critics say, betrayed his populist promises — building a corrupt government of cronies who looted the national treasury and enforced their will through armed gangs.

Mrs. Baker does not know who burned her family’s factory, but there seems little doubt the destruction came at the hands of Aristide loyalists. The Bakers were part of the opposition, a nonviolent group that accused Mr. Aristide of corruption and violence and demanded his resignation.

“The government in place did nothing to protect us,” she said, referring to the last day that Mr. Aristide was in office. “The government and its leader did not encourage unity in Haiti; instead they encouraged division and hatred.”

A hallmark of Mr. Aristide’s oratory was his harsh criticism of Haiti’s rich, whom he likened to rocks in a stream washed by cool waters. He often called on his followers to help the rich learn about the life of the poor, whom he likened to rocks baking in the hot Caribbean sun.

Mr. Cherie comes from the same small town in southern Haiti where Mr. Aristide was born, and though he swears that a poor man like himself has no time for politics, he was a strong Aristide supporter.

“Haiti’s whole problem is the elites,” he said. “When Aristide tried to do anything to help the poor, the elites would block him. They would play a trick or boycott him, and that’s why he finally had to go. The elites held their marches, but what were they marching for? Themselves. They don’t care about the poor.”

Different worlds

Mrs. Baker said her family built its factory near one of Haiti’s most dangerous, hopeless slums precisely because she does care about the poor.

“I will not leave Cite Soleil,” she said, vowing to rebuild, even if it takes generations. “If I leave Cite Soleil, I abandon Cite Soleil. We are working the best way we know how to change Haiti, by creating jobs, by paying taxes to the state. We are not here to step on the poor. We’re trying to provide jobs to help them improve their lives.”

Some of Mrs. Baker’s employees have worked for the family for decades. They earned the equivalent of about $4 per day, roughly four times Haiti’s minimum wage.

Mr. Cherie has never in his life been touched by any such concern on the part of Haiti’s rich.

“The only work I find is small jobs for the elite,” he said. “They offer me a job that I know should cost 5,000 gourdes [about $125], and they say they will only pay me 500 gourdes [about $12]. If I refuse, they will find someone else because there are too many here who will do anything to feed their families.”

Mr. Cherie is a proud man who built his house by hand, much of it with castoff materials that he begged from the rich. The walls are not rough block but smooth stucco, painted a cheerful blue. The clean floor is made of broken tiles that he carefully reassembled before setting them in mortar.

When he is not looking for work, he spends his days cleaning, washing clothes or sitting in the shade on a broken metal chair. His wife goes out each day and begs or borrows something to feed their children. Three of their five children live with his mother because Mr. Cherie and his wife cannot provide for them.

Mr. Cherie sometimes keeps an eye on Israel and Natan Germain, the two toddlers of his equally impoverished neighbor, who sometimes cavort naked in the dirt around their run-down hovel, then bathe in a plastic tub filled with rainwater caught by a rusty piece of bent metal fashioned into a gutter under the edge of the roof.

“I finished high school,” Mr. Cherie said. “I wanted to become an engineer or a doctor. But those jobs are only for the elite in Haiti. No poor person like me has money to go to the university for such an education.”

Mrs. Baker’s grandfather was an Episcopal missionary from England, her other grandfather a trader, and her father an agronomist. She and some of her siblings opened their first, small sewing operation in 1970, making it grow through hard work, constant attention and steady reinvestment of the profits.

Her brother, Charles, is one of the most outspoken leaders of the Group of 184, a coalition of business, civic and peasant groups that sprang up in the past 18 months seeking to resolve Haiti’s political crisis.

“Haiti has always been divided between rich and poor,” Mrs. Baker said. “That’s why the Group of 184 was started. We are all one nation, and we spent months going around the country holding meetings, telling the leaders of peasant groups that we are all brothers and sisters. Dozens of their groups joined. We are finally working toward the same objective, and not looking at each other across a divide.”

Whether such an appeal will break down the suspicions of the poor like Mr. Cherie is the question that might decide Haiti’s future.


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